Susan Onyango an expert in geothermal development and works for Ressources Geologiques pour le Développement Durable (Géo2D). She is also a member of ACCESS Coalition’s Coordination Group.
- What inspired you to work in the energy access sector?
My current work focuses on community-based geothermal development.
Geothermal energy is a natural resource found below the surface of the earth. It is a type of renewable energy taken from the earth’s core that can be harvested for human use. Geothermal resources are found mainly along the African Rift Valley (ARV), especially the Eastern Africa Rift Valley (EARV).
What inspired me to work in the energy access sector is the desire to see the tremendous, but until now, untapped potential of geothermal resources along the ARV being used to improve the livelihoods of local populations inhabiting lands around geothermal-rich areas. These are often energy-poor populations; most vulnerable to and impacted by climate change effects; and living in arid areas that are deprived of water. Geothermal resources can be used to provide both water and energy, thus respond to some of the most fundamental socio-economic needs of these economically vulnerable populations and thereby improve the quality of their lives.
- What are the key achievements of your organization in promoting energy access and just energy transition?
One of the key achievements of the organization I work with – Ressources Geologiques pour le Développement Durable (Géo2D) – has been in the area of just energy transition. For at least ten years now, Géo2D has been involved in advocating for an approach to geothermal development that focuses on sustainable small-scale, community-based geothermal energy projects that respond to socio-economic needs such as food security and water access, for local populations living around geothermal resources – thus promoting the idea of green energy for all.
Géo2D is currently involved in a three and half years research project – September 2020 to March 2024) – (under European Union funding) whose objective is to produce data that facilitates the introduction of geothermal-based stand-alone electric and thermal energy systems to target off-grid African communities, with the local populations as key stakeholders.
The project covers 4 African countries (Rwanda, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya), brings together 14 organizations (7 from Africa – including 2 Community-Based Organizations – and 7 from Europe), and is formulated around the idea of the Geothermal Village (GV) concept. The GV concept was conceived by Géo2D as an approach to geothermal development that is characterized by shallow drilling in near surface geothermal systems, with cascading use of geothermal energy, from electric production (using High-Temperature fluids from geothermal resources) to thermal direct use (using Low-Temperature fluids from geothermal resources). Gender is a central pillar in the GV concept. I lead the EU Research project’s Social Aspects and Dynamics component, which underscores a gender perspective in the initiative’s implementation.
Using the example of the above-mentioned EU-funded Research project, enhanced consideration for community participation in geothermal processes with the idea of addressing local populations’ socio-economic needs within the geothermal development arena through community-based geothermal initiatives is therefore an achievement that Géo2D is happy to be associated with.
Increased consideration for the GV concept – conceived by Géo2D – as a possible approach to address the energy poverty situations of off-grid African communities inhabiting geothermal-rich land, with gender as a key factor is consequently another achievement that Géo2D is pleased to be affiliated to.
Géo2D is also delighted to be associated with the deepened attention to the social dimension in geothermal development that the research project brings on board, a departure from the over-emphasis on environmental issues at the expense of social issues that has until now, tended to characterize classical geothermal initiatives along the ARV.
My work has involved promoting an approach to geothermal development where local populations are at the center of the processes. The work encourages the inclusion of women in decision-making processes related to geothermal development taking place on the land inhabited by target local populations.
Geothermal development initiatives have primarily focused on large-scale projects that serve the national electric grid needs, with little to no attention of the energy needs of local populations living around the geothermal sites. On the one hand, decisions that have been made around such initiatives have therefore tended to by-pass the local populations living around the geothermal sites.
On the other hand, at community level, practically all the local populations along the EARV are culturally not used to involving women in decision-making processes; and even less, in those related to geothermal development, as it is considered to entail addressing land issues – a preserve of such communities male elders.
Some of the challenges I have faced in my line of work include resistance both at local community and higher levels, in accepting the approach to geothermal development that I promote, which includes involving women from the local populations to meaningfully participate in geothermal development-related processes on their land. In this regard, I have on numerous instances encountered demonstrated preference for maintaining the status quo.
- What’s your message as we commemorate International Women’s Month?
Women and girls are some of the most adversely affected by energy poverty. Some of their challenges in the African set-up include walking long distances to access sources of energy – primarily wood. Among the ripple effects of this situation is increased deforestation, which exacerbates climate change effects, resulting in a vicious cycle of challenges for the women and girls.
Renewable energy resources such as geothermal have the potential to sustainably address such situations, especially if approached from a gender perspective. The voices of women, alongside those of men, should therefore be included in all the stages of these kinds of energy initiatives so that the special needs and circumstances of women – and by extension girls – in respective contexts are also adequately taken into consideration. Renewable energy initiatives should aim at being gender-responsive.